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  • Editor's Introduction
  • Jean-Michel Rabaté

Last December, I was asked to give a talk in Glasgow at the conference organized by the Scottish Network of Modernist Studies, whose topic was "In or about December 1910." The decision to focus on Virginia Woolf's famous statement from her essay "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown"—namely that human character changed in December 1910—was extremely astute and led to highly productive results. The strict historical bracket never precluded deploying new theoretical perspectives. Woolf's conceit that reality changes when our perception of the world changes, and that not only human "character" but also literary "characters" are involved in that change, would find a perfect exemplification in James Harker's essay "Misperceiving Virginia Woolf." In it, he shows that if reality is made up of our perception of the world, it should also include our distortion of it, taking into account our delusions and mistaken perceptions. Harker points out that modernist characters are often wrong in their apprehension of facts, and he traces the trope of misperception throughout Woolf's fiction. For Woolf, the sense that we inhabit a "modern" environment is generated as much by fallacies of perception as by accurate or scientific assessments. The genius of modernist writers has consisted in making us understand that misperception and error can offer invaluable insights and new points of entrance into original universes of discourse while building bridges between our inner and outer worlds.

Thus it was misleading, to say the least, to equate modernism with a "petty-bourgeois subjectivism" divorced from objective reality, as Georg Lukacs alleged in the fifties. For instance, as Michael Chaney shows, a modernist poet like Cummings was able to mediate between the objective analysis of racial oppression and the subjective recreation of a poetic world. In "E. E. Cummings's Tom: A Ballet and Uncle Tom's Doll-Dance of Modernism," Chaney takes as his point of departure Cummings's never-performed ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin to argue that modernist notions of the primitive and the automaton imbue the ballet, whereas its main topic is utterly sentimental. Here, the old opposition between sentimentalism and the experimentalism of the avant-garde collapses. Cummings's verbal representations of the ballet's dances are prose poems that dynamically combine Stowe's sentimentality with a modernist sensibility capable of working with artificial automata so as to reveal, as with the Lacanian "Thing," the whole horror of slavery. [End Page v]

These first two essays map out the coordinates of today's modernist studies on both the American and British side. The rest of the issue is devoted to Irish modernism. Beginning with one of the plays that shaped the modern spirit via violent controversy, Sarah Townsend discusses the ending of Synge's Playboy of the Western World, when Christy Mahon departs for a cosmopolitan future at the very moment that he insists on personal and national sovereignty. Townsend examines that conflicted gesture and sees in such a combination of cosmopolitan ambition and nationalist sentiment a deep rift within the Celtic Revival itself. The figure of Christy Mahon continues to challenge our notions of cosmopolitanism and nationalism. In a similar manner, but at a more theoretical level, Stan Gontarski focuses on the links between Bergson's philosophy of movement and multiplicity and Beckett's works. For him, Bergsonian metaphysics—characterized by an anti-empirical emphasis on intuition, a critique of representation, and an emphasis on image and memory—imbues Beckett's work. An emblematic Krapp vainly struggles to arrest the flow of duration with concepts, symbols or a tape-recorder. If metaphysics is the science that claims to dispense with symbols, Bergson leads us to Watt's final caveat: "No symbols where none intended." In the same context, Marta Figlerowicz explores the links between ethics, anxiety, and character in Beckett's fiction. Her essay defines a new relationship between characterization and ethics in Molloy and "The Calmative." She provides a rationale for the characters' precarious existences, highlighting what these strategies reveal about the texts' ethical framework. Beckett narratives single out anxiety as an affect capable of creating or destroying another person's humanity in the observer's eyes. In...


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